Red Rivers – Jessica Kolopenuk

1. Encoded 

For my first, I begin where I did: the waters of my mother’s body. From her I inherited a code. Mitochondrial DNA. It is no code, no secret to me, though. Haplogroup B, you say? Well, I guess. Scientific stories abound, but knowing where my body comes from came to me through different means. I am my mother’s daughter. The blood that flows through, that flows out of me is my homeland. Embodied connection across time-space with all of the other bleeders. Lineage. The Red River. These are the bodies that made me. And this is where we are from.1

The study of genes and genomes has changed the way that many disciplines are practiced. It has changed the way that human variation is articulated, biomedical research done, conservation sciences conducted, and, increasingly, it is impacting the formation of political subjectivities and identities of difference. Additionally, the sharing of DNA data has become an international norm linking states together. Advances in genomic technologies have altered the policy landscapes of industrialized and mostly Western states by requiring the creation of, for example, statutes (especially those regarding privacy) relating to the collection and use of DNA. Genetic sciences and technologies have emerged as a mark of modern problem solving/making.

At the intersections of science and state policy, the genetic material of indigenous peoples is being increasingly collected for purposes of scientific study (i.e. ancient human migration), biomedical research (i.e. immunological susceptibilities), and policy-based population management (i.e. incarceration, missing persons recovery efforts, and civil paternity testing for purposes of state categorization) – all of which tends to increase bio-colonial control of indigenous bodies, our lives and deaths. Genetic articulations of indigeneity seem abrupt and new, but they did not just appear.

Colonialism has always involved access to indigenous territories and bodies (Reardon and TallBear 2012, S234). Iterations of indigeneity are fundamentally tied up with claims to and dis/possession from political collectivity, expressed in terms of territory, sovereignty, peoplehood, or nationhood. DNA in bodies is often framed as a part of “nature” – a “natural” object of study – and, therefore, a white scientific claim to property of and over it is commonplace (Reardon and TallBear 2012, S234). Most popularly, white claims to “Native American DNA” light up screens through direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing commercials and advertisements. They sell the notion that, you too, might embody the code of the ancient ones: a gimmick impetuously thrown in the faces of actual indigenous peoples.

In 2013 I sequenced my mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is the DNA that everyone inherits from their bio-mom. Bio-moms can pass it on, bio-dads cannot. It is among the genetic lineages that population geneticists use to decipher “Native American DNA.” “Native American DNA” has been classified to describe the genetic mutations, expressed as haplogroups, inherited by (some) living indigenous people from the so-called founders of so-called Native American populations. Mitochondrial haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X have been labeled “Native American.”

When I sequenced my DNA, I was not trying to decode my identity. I was taking part in an internship designed to increase the scientific literacy and training of indigenous people. What I came to learn, however, is that the story told by genetic analysis aligns with my own family’s story about where we come from, albeit through a much different narrative. It said that I am genetically linked to all of the bio-female relatives in my direct maternal lineage – the ones before me, and after me, and, also, that we roughly originate from the geographic region on the prairies that I know as home.

2. The Moon

Living somewhere new was thrilling. But traveling across an ocean is hard. Loneliness. The energies of those new (to me) places and people and ideas were interesting. Yet, everything my body touched was unfamiliar. I missed that mighty muddy River. Those prairie smells. My people. I needed something to nurse my hunger for home. To tide me over. The Moon. Her movement tracks mine, tracks me. She is constant, even if unseen, keeping secrets untold of her dark side. Her presence and permanence allow me to triangulate my body, up to hers, back down home. My more-than-land-based connection is restored.

The critical project of deconstructing colonial narratives of indigeneity, like genomic ones, involves articulating indigenous ontologies of existence from our own standpoints. I am myself a part of Iyiniw peoplehood. I am a bear clan Iyiniw woman, descendant of Chief Peguis’ people (who are Cree and Anishinabe) from the Red River region north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In Cardinal and Hildebrandt (2000), a group of Dene, Cree, Saulteaux, and Assiniboine elders explain their understanding of the source of their existence as Iyiniwak. They describe the source as emanating from their being related to the first people, the nistamêyimâkan, on the People’s Island, iyiniw ministik. Iyiniw peoplehood can be understood as being constituted through ontological relationships to place and relatives (human and non-human) through wakohtowin – the state of being related.

Wakohtowin exemplifies Moreton-Robinson’s (2015) assertion that indigenous sovereignty is based on “an ontology that exists outside of the logic of capital” (191). It is not a possessive form of being and belonging. Jodi Byrd (2011) writes of kinship sovereignties in a similar way: “[m]y definition of kinship sovereignty depends upon these structured networks as counter to state-centered articulations of sovereignty that depend, in Enlightenment humanism, on the centrality of the sovereign individual” (264). Wakhotowin was not a word I grew up hearing. We talked, instead, about family. Within our family, kinship is a form of power, not resistance. Blood is a bio-symbol not centrally denoting race, but the power generated through family relationships to tack together peopled and territorial connections.

When I first began to bleed, embodiment came to mean something more to me and, over the years, I have since reflected on what bleeding means to me as an indigenous woman: how it connects me to my female relatives, to my ceremonial items and medicine, and to the non-human world of my homeland. I have been trained up academically in verses of social constructionism as well as critical race and whiteness theory. My graduate work has been devoted to analyzing the dangers and violence of organizing human groups according to misguided perceptions of physical difference. Yet, I cannot deny the power of sanguine materiality in shaping, at least partly, my sense of self and how my body is moored to the places that I come from. Biology has, at least in part, always shaped nations and peoples, but race orders those relations in exclusively vehement ways. Is there a way to talk about bloodlines to country that is not all about race – that opens, rather than forecloses spaces for kinship-making? And is there a way to talk about physical capacities to bring new life forward in a way that does not put the sole responsibility of reproducing our peoples onto those bodies deemed female?

I acknowledge that not only women bleed and that not all women do. I respect other bleeding and non-bleeding people and the way that each of us interacts with this relationship to our bodies. This essay is not meant to assert certitude to the categories of sex and gender typically identified with menstruation. I do not have answers to the questions I have posed. My intention, rather, is to personally reflect on my own embodied keystones as a Cree woman. Writing helps me make sense of the things in my life and I want to make sense of my deep and enduring connection to my mother, my grandmother, her mother, and on and on. This work involves thinking through the networked connections – the nodes and lines – linking the relationships I have to my own body, to my family, and to my homeland.

3. White Feather

“Welcome, Wapiski Mîkwan. We’ve been waiting for you. This is yours.”

A white eagle feather. Its beauty froze me in place, causing tears to stream down my dazed appearance.

The moon lodge is where I received her. The one that was prophesized for me. Wapiski mîkwanwak, we are reunited. The sovereignty of our bodies is resounding, materially connected through my blood. But what does it mean to carry moon medicine? I’m still not sure. For now I will use it to re-code. Come back with me to my mother’s waters, among the bleeders, to our homeland: to the Red River.

Notes

I have written a series of 3 x 100s called “Red Rivers.” Red Rivers is a three 100-word experiment in writing. 100s is a writing concept developed by University of Vermont English Professor Emily Bernard in 2009 and then launched by variety of writing groups. 100s are meant to be flexible, open to structural and conceptual interpretation, exploratory, and experimental. I came across 100s through my mentor and pre-doctoral fellowship supervisor, Dr. Kim TallBear, who has published a series of “Critical Poly 100s” on her website as a way to creatively express her auto-ethnographic polyamorous practice. As someone who is painfully disciplined in academic prose, I enjoy writing 100s as a way to play with my raw ideas in a manner that is unorthodox, unexpected, and uninhibited.

Bibliography

Byrd, J. A. (2011). The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cardinal, H and W. Hildebrandt. (2000). Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan: Our Dream Is That Our Peoples Will One Day Be Clearly Recognized As Nations. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Reardon, J., and K. TallBear. (2012). “Your DNA is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and The Construction of Whiteness As Property.” CurrentAnthropology, 53(S5), S233–45.

Jessica Kolopenuk (Cree) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. She is completing a pre-doctoral fellowship in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta where she is assisting Dr. Kim TallBear in developing an Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society Research Lab (Indigenous STS). On her mother’s side, Jessica descends from Peguis First Nation of the Red River region north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Jessica’s research examines the colonial politics involved with genetic productions of indigeneity in biomedical research, forensic science, and ancestry testing. She is interested in what the conceptual (re)shaping of indigeneity through genetic research, technologies, and bioeconomies can reveal about the changing and enduring spaces and techniques of colonial power. www.indigenoussts.com